SHARE Mayors in the Spotlight: a SHARE Network series featuring short interviews with Mayors making tangible contributions to receiving refugees or supporting newcomers in European smaller and rural communities.
Jannewietske de Vries, Municipality of Súdwest-Fryslân, The Netherlands
Receiving resettled refugees during COVID-19
Since 2018, Jannewietske de Vries has been the mayor of Sudwest-Fryslan, a municipality in the north of Netherlands with 89 localities and approximately 90,000 inhabitants. Sudwest-Fryslan was formed in 2011 by a merger of five smaller municipalities, and again enlarged in 2014 and 2018 by parts of territories from neighbouring municipalities also merging with others in the region. Sudwest-Fryslan covers a large geographical area, made up of rural land and water surface.
Mayor de Vries is a passionate skater who likes to get things done - and she does! In her former position as deputy for the Province of Friesland, she led on the successful bid to make Leeuwarden/Friesland the 2018 Cultural Capital of Europe. ‘Iepen Mienskip’ (Open Community) was the central theme of the Cultural Capital celebrations and activities. ‘Mienskip means ‘community’ is the Fries language’, the mayor explains, ‘and is all about mutual support and mobilising the community to help one another. Mienskip is also shown to those in need outside one’s own community’. For several years, the municipality has hosted an asylum reception centre in Sneek, managed by the Centraal Orgaan Opvang Asielzoekers (the Dutch Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers/COA) and engaging many local volunteers of the Dutch Refugee Council.
From the start of the COVID-19 crisis in Europe, all travellers entering the Netherlands must complete a strict two-week quarantine before moving within the country. In mid-2020, the COA asked the municipality for their support for a scheme to provide temporary quarantine accommodation for two groups of 140 resettled refugees. The group had been selected for resettlement in Lebanon, but could not travel to the Netherlands unless arrangements for quarantine accommodation were made. ‘Of course we wanted to help out’, Mayor de Vries explains. ‘Helping these refugees to come to the Netherlands is absolutely the normal human thing to do’.
Mayor de Vries consulted with community groups and associations in the municipality to find out what they thought about the feasibility of such a scheme. ‘The feedback was positive’, she relates, ‘so I wrote personally to all inhabitants to inform them about the planned arrivals’. Quarantine accommodation was organised at a large local youth hostel facility, which is situated on the lakeside in Heeg and normally accommodates the many sailors that stay temporarily in the locality.
‘Of course they did the necessary work to ensure that the site would be safe for both adults and children in this new situation’, Mayor de Vries recalls. ‘And then the many buses arrived in the village, everything happened very smoothly with no media attention whatsoever.’
Working together with the COA, Mayor de Vries produced a heartwarming welcome video message, subtitled in Arabic and played to refugees on arrival:
‘These refugees had travelled for such a long period and been through so many things already’, explains the mayor, ‘so it was really wonderful that they had finally arrived in the Netherlands. Even if they had to complete the two-week quarantine before moving to their new homes in different municipalities, I’m happy we were able to contribute to making it the most welcoming experience possible’.
The quarantine period the Syrian refugees went well, with no new infections and some recreational activities for children able to be implemented at the accommodation facility. ‘So when the COA called us again’ Mayor de Vries explains, ‘and asked ‘Could you host a second group of refugees that are awaiting resettlement from Cairo?’, we had a good system in place and so we said ‘Yes, of course’ and 140 more refugees arrived some months later to our town. It was a good experience’.
‘It is a great privilege to report on inspiring efforts at local level such as these’, says Petra Hueck of ICMC Europe, speaking on behalf of the SHARE Network, ‘which in this case ensured that nearly 300 refugees were able to travel to start their lives in the Netherlands even amid the COVID-19 crisis. These are complicated times to begin the integration process, but the welcome shown by the municipality of Súdwest-Fryslân and the personal commitment of Mayor de Vries has certainly lit the way as it has our hearts’.